1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs
Call it the Little Album That Could. Unlike the two previous annual list-toppers posted on this blog, the first full-length effort by Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever was not a slam-dunk for best of the year. Hope Downs is neither the final masterpiece by a beloved rock icon who’d had a career full of them, like 2016’s worthy winner, nor, as was the case with 2017’s champ, an audacious, brainy comeback inspired by the death of said icon. No, it’s simply fun, jangly indie rock, played with shiver-inducing vitality and a lack of fuss, the way God intended. Ten great songs, imbued with the familiarity of bygone groups that I adore, by a scrappy Melbourne fivesome with an unwieldy moniker and a knack for killer hooks. And in the complicated climate of 2018, that ended up being enough. Continue reading
2. Laura Veirs – The Lookout
You know how Harvest Moon is only, like, the ninth or tenth best Neil Young album, and for sure one of his least ambitious, but there are certain times – I’m thinking Sunday at twilight, sitting on the porch and sipping an adult beverage as the sun sinks below the horizon—when its gentle country-folk ditties are all you want to hear? That thought came to mind as I was getting to know The Lookout, the latest solo outing by Colorado singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. Not just because gentle country-folk is well-represented here, by “Seven Falls,” “The Canyon,” and several other exquisitely crafted songs. (Though a few, such as “Watch Fire,” which features feathery counterpoint vocals by Sufjan Stevens, skirt the edges of indie-pop.) It’s also because, while this is most assuredly not the hippest album of 2018 – Veirs is the kind of lyricist who is unafraid to pen a sentimental line like “Man alive, I’m glad I found you” – I can’t think of one that sounds lovelier. Continue reading
3. Field Music – Open Here
Serendipity bonded me to the English pop-rock combo Field Music, led by Sunderland brothers David and Peter Brewis, on a sunny afternoon last winter. I’d only recently become aware of the 15-year-old group, having read a rave review of its sixth album, Open Here, in a magazine, and listened to the catchy, lyrically potent single “Count It Up” online. Curiosity piqued, I ambled down to my favourite Portsmouth record shop-slash-eatery Pie & Vinyl to see if perchance the album was in stock. I entered the shop to find, amongst the pies and the vinyl, none other than the Brewis bros performing an in-store set to a rapt audience. I was only able to catch the last song, but I grabbed a copy of Open Here and got them to autograph it. (Dig their marker scrawls on the cover in the accompanying photo.) In that moment, I felt that fate was telling me I’m meant to be a fan. Continue reading
4. Parquet Courts – Wide Awaaaaake!
On paper, the sixth outing by critically adored Brooklyn band Parquet Courts doesn’t seem to support the argument for the album as a cohesive art form. It careens in nearly as many musical directions as there are tracks, kicking off with the Clash-like call to arms “Total Football” before swerving from Pink Floyd-scented psychedelia (“Mardi Gras Beads”) to bass-heavy disco-funk (“Wide Awake!”) to cinematic ‘60s pop (“Death Will Bring Change”) along the way. Yet perhaps more than any other album on my best-of-2018 list, it needs to be absorbed as a whole. Heard out of context, the frenetic verbal onslaught of the second track, “Violence,” might give the impression that the four group members are overly caffeinated, earnest-to-a-fault art-punks. (A random scan of previous releases would likely not dispel this notion.) Likewise, on its own, the mellow-rockin’ “Freebird II” might peg them as a Modern Lovers tribute act with a secret fondness for Lynyrd Skynyrd. But as produced by Danger Mouse, who has worked with artists as disparate as the Black Keys, Norah Jones and ASAP Rocky, it all sounds strangely of a piece. Continue reading
7. The Lemon Twigs – Go to School
I remember, way back in the mid-1980s, playing the debut album by They Might Be Giants for a former roommate, a semi-Goth type with a fondness for the gloomier realms of rock music. He balked at the wackiness of such songs as “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” and was downright offended by the use of accordion. “In 10 years, are you still going to be listening to this?” he scoffed. The joke was on him because TMBG has endured. Heck, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” alone has secured a lasting place in the pop pantheon, and the duo just recently released its 21st studio album. Will the career of the Lemon Twigs, another zany twosome from New York, be as long-lasting? Brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, only 21 and 19, respectively – more millennials! – certainly have grand ambitions, and the talent to go the distance. Continue reading
8. Neko Case – Hell-On
Indie rock hero Neko Case is one of our most fearless songwriters. She seemingly has no qualms about laying bare her soul on each album she puts out, and her no-bullshit vocals drive the emotional honesty home. She’s also rather prolific, having released six previous solo efforts as well as collaborations with the Canadian bands New Pornographers and the Sadies. (My favourite project in her extensive discography remains 2016’s case/lang/veirs, a gorgeous and strikingly simpatico pas de trois with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, both of whom contribute backing vocals here.) The sheer volume of her repertoire combined with her artistic daredevilry has resulted in a laudable but inconsistent body of work – as much as I’ve liked some of her albums, I can’t name one that I would call brilliant from first cut to last. Her latest is no exception, but it’s quite worthwhile nonetheless. Continue reading
9. Superorganism – Superorganism
In the rather grumpy intro to this blog series, I laid the blame for the current dire state of the music industry squarely at the overpriced sneakers of those cursed millennials. But I must grudgingly concede that not everything the Snapchat generation does is bad. Take my #9 pick for the best albums of 2018. Superorganism, a multi-national collective of whippersnappers that features a shockingly young lead vocalist in 18-year-old Orono Noguchi, has a backstory that couldn’t be more “new school.” Continue reading
After two consecutive annual lists that have been mired in mellow indie rock, I’m happy to report that my picks for the best albums of 2018 are a bit more diverse – soul, folk, rafter-shaking arena rock, and even dubstep are represented, as are venerable masters and young guns. This year’s winners are also, as in the past, testaments to the art form. With one or two arguable exceptions, they hang together as cohesive works and are meant to be listened to in their entirety, from beginning to end. And not just these, but other worthy runners-up by Beach House, Fantastic Negrito, the 1975, and Christine and the Queens. 2018 really was an embarrassment of riches musically.
1: LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
I’ll be honest, ranking the best albums of the year can be kind of an arbitrary process. (Shocking, I know!) I employ no failsafe algorithms to ensure each record is assigned its proper numerical spot in the top 10, I just go on gut feeling. Is the latest soft-rock opus by the War on Drugs really one notch better than the first full-length collaboration by country siblings Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer? Ask me again in a few months and I may tell you a different answer. But there was no dithering over my #1 choice for the best album of 2017. American Dream, the fourth release by hipster Brooklyn act LCD Soundsystem, practically wallops you over the head with its greatness. It’s the first LCD recording since 2011, when ringleader James Murphy announced the band’s “retirement.” Coaxed by hero and colleague David Bowie—the two joined forces on Bowie’s brilliant final album, Blackstar—Murphy got the gang back together and American Dream is an exhilarating example of second-wind success. It’s got most everything longtime fans want: witty, incisive lyrics, groovy electro beats that stretch into epic club jams, and the usual Rolodex of cool musical references — here you’ll hear echoes of Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Joy Division, and of course, Bowie himself. But there’s a newfound maturity to the work. Gone are tossed-off novelties like “Drunk Girls” from 2011’s This Is Happening. The expansive compositions on American Dream flow and evolve more seamlessly than on previous efforts, and the lyrics are more complex. The breathtaking “tonite” skewers the current state of pop culture, calling out “these bullying children of the fabulous, raffling off limited edition shoes.” But it also manages to be astutely self-aware as Murphy, now 47, frets over his advancing age. “I’m a reminder, a hobbled veteran of the disc shop inquisition,” he sings/raps, “sent to parry the cocksure mem-stick filth with mine own late-era middle-aged ramblings.” Modest as those sentiments are, that’s some bravura writing there. The emotional highlight is the final track, “black screen,” a dreamy tribute to Murphy’s relationship with Bowie— “You fell between a friend and a father”—that musically recalls Bowie’s legendary Berlin sessions with Brian Eno. Ambitious, whip-smart, hilarious but also surprisingly poignant in parts, American Dream is not only far and away the best album of 2017, it’s one for the ages.
2: Iron & Wine – Beast Epic
Here is perhaps the most misleading album title of last year. Beast Epic may refer to the literary genre in which animals take on human voices, but music fans would be forgiven for thinking they’re about to slog through a bombastic heavy metal concept album – it’s a wonder Iron Maiden didn’t get to the name first. Fortunately, the sixth solo release by indie-folk hero Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine, is succinct, stripped down, and simply gorgeous. (The homey embroidered cover image is a much more fitting indication of the contents within.) After dabbling in electronics and studio embellishments on his most recent albums, Beam circles back to the intimate, unadorned sound of his earliest recordings. Close your eyes and it may seem as if he is playing right in your living room. You hear the strings of his acoustic guitar creak and its hollow body reverberate as he raps out a laid-back tempo. Muted percussion, keyboards and strings are used sparingly for accompaniment. Beam’s formidable talents as a songwriter shine brightest in this natural state. His lyrics here are full-hearted meditations on the human condition and the wonders of nature, studded with the occasional barbed observation. “Jesus and his trophy wives are praying for the suicides and orphans,” he sneers on “The Truest Stars We Know.” A cozy masterpiece, Beast Epic ranks with 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog as Beam’s finest work.